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How to train your palate - harnessing taste to impact flavour (part 1)

by Ben Sibley

It’s easy to assume you understand taste, but do you really? Do you recognise the specific flavours and textures being perceived by your palate? And can you identify how these interact with each other to create the harmonious sensorial experience associated with great coffee?

By understanding how to recognise flavour and texture, will you develop the tools you need to make your coffee taste better and achieve your desired cup. In training your palate to identify wanted and unwanted qualities, you will be able to impact flavour quickly, accurately and with consistency.

In this first of a series of articles, we will introduce the mechanics of taste, how it impacts our perception of flavour, and a framework for analysing how it manifests on your palate.

What is taste?

Taste is a complex sensorial experience that allows us to perceive and appreciate the flavours of the food and drink we consume. Our tastebuds contain specialised cells that detect five primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (a savoury taste sometimes confused with salty).

Molecules within food and drink bind to these taste receptors, triggering nerve impulses that are transmitted to the brain. This information is then processed and interpreted as specific tastes.

But taste alone does not fully define our perception of flavour. Sense of smell plays a crucial role in enhancing our taste experience. When we consume food and drink, flavour compounds travel through the back of the mouth to the tissue inside the nasal cavity which is involved in smell.

The brain then combines taste and smell information to create a multisensorial perception of flavour. That's why when our sense of smell is compromised, our ability to taste is significantly affected. Try dialling in coffee when you’ve got a head cold and you’ll get the picture.

Several variables can influence our perception of taste. The texture of what is being introduced to the palate, air temperature, unique past life experiences, and our cultural background can all influence our perception of taste.

Life experience is particularly interesting here, as taste is so closely linked to memory. The taste of blueberries may remind you of the blueberry muffins you baked with your mum as a child but to someone else that taste is most similar to their favourite restaurant’s blueberry cheesecake. 

Taste is a multi-layered, complex interplay that creates our perception of flavour. And before you attempt to make your coffee taste better, you need to understand what you’re tasting and how to communicate this.

By tuning in to what you’re tasting in your coffee, becoming familiar with terminology used to describe flavour and texture, you will create a framework of reference points that will help you to achieve your desired taste experience.

A framework for understanding taste

By analysing what you taste, you build your understanding of the composition of good (and bad) coffee, enabling you to impact flavour most efficiently. And recording this within a framework of sensory qualities will help you to achieve the best-tasting cup possible, unlocking the full potential of your beans.

A set of key variables provide a starting point for this. Each as important as the other, a balanced cup of coffee is one in which all are present and harmonious.

Acidity

Coffee beans contain acids that directly influence flavour in the cup, and acidity refers to the bright, sometimes fruity, sometimes citrus-like notes that are present in certain coffees.

It adds complexity to the flavour experience, cuts through richness and can enhance the overall balance of the flavour. Coffees with higher acidity, such as many single origin east African coffees, are often described as having a “bright” or “crisp” taste. And they will more likely present flavours of citrus fruits, tart berries, grape and sometimes wine.

Coffees with low acidity, such as the Assembly Blend, can vary significantly in flavour but they are often associated with notes of chocolate, cocoa, nut, caramel, and molasses. 

Acidity in coffee should not be confused with bitterness. While balanced acidity can add a pleasing tartness, bitterness can be the result of over-extraction – leading to an unpleasant taste.

Sweetness

Sweetness in coffee isn’t the same (sometimes synthetic) sweetness you associate with desserts or confectionary. In coffee, it’s more complex and can present as a pleasant, delicate sweetness similar to that found in caramelised sugar or ripe fruits. 

The level of sweetness present in the coffee depends on the variety, the microbiome of the soil in which the coffee was grown, the post-harvest processing method, and the roasting level. It’s a highly desirable quality that adds depth and balance to the overall flavour of the coffee.

Body

When we consider body in coffee, we’re referring to the weight and thickness of the brew. Body is usually labelled as light, medium or full.

Light-bodied coffees tend to have a thinner, more delicate mouthfeel, medium-bodied coffees have a moderate weight and full-bodied coffees feel heavier and more substantial on the palate.

Finish

Finish is used to describe the flavour that lingers on the palate after coffee has been swallowed. A positive finish complements the overall flavour of the coffee and is often associated with desirable flavours such as fruit or chocolate. An unwanted finish usually has bitterness, dryness (astringency), or sourness.

Overall flavour

The overall flavour of your cup of coffee is an amalgamation of acidity, sweetness, body, and finish. It’s likely that if just one of these is not as you want it, you won’t achieve the overall flavour you’re aiming for.

Structure

Structure can be interpreted as the interplay between acidity, texture (more on this later in the series) and sweetness. It refers to the overall organisation and balance of these elements that contribute to the perception of coffee's flavour and mouthfeel.

The sensory experience of coffee involves a combination of taste, aroma, and tactile sensations, and 'structure' is useful to describe how these elements come together.

Complexity

Complexity refers to the breadth and diversity of flavours and aromas that can be perceived in a single cup. It arises from various factors, including the origin of the coffee, the post-harvest process, roast profile, and the brewing technique.

A positive characteristic, complexity reflects the depth and sophistication of the coffee's sensory profile.

Keep in mind

  • Water - The water used to brew will have a significant impact on the qualities present in your cup of coffee. Water should always be filtered to remove impurities, optimise mineral composition and subsequently interact with the flavour compounds of your coffee most efficiently.
  • Perception - We don’t perceive coffee in the same way every time we taste it, even if it’s the same coffee being tasted. Our own perception can vary according to changes in our environment, the material of the vessel used to consume the beverage, and even our frame of mind. Keeping these as consistent as possible is key to making the best of every coffee you make.
  • Temperature - The temperature of what you’re tasting has a significant impact on how flavours are perceived by your palate. The perception of flavour is easiest and most efficient when you consume food or drink that is as close as possible to your own body temperature – usually 37°C.

Part 2 explores the detail in terminology of taste and texture. Read it here.